By Sanah Bhardwaj
There is nothing as magical as the world of debate. To the unsuspecting outsider, debaters seem like the superheroes of the academic universe, their powers including speaking at 400 words per minute, using nonsensical buzzwords, and shutting out the feelings of novice debaters. Every weekend, our superheroes go head-to-head for the ultimate reward: a bid to the Tournament of Champions (TOC). However, in this endless cycle of high-stake tournaments for the ultimate glory of a TOC qualification, one poor group is routinely excluded: novices. One may think, how could novices be excluded? Every “good” debater now was a novice at one point, right? But It is this discourse that perpetuates the ignorance of inequality in novice debate growth. Whether it be the erasure of small school/marginalized novices or the sheer exclusivity of varsity debate, novices continually get the short end of the stick unless they are lucky enough to already have the resources that so many debaters long for in their career. In this article, I take issue with the “novice exclusion” phenomenon specifically in circuit Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debate (though I am positive it exists in other debate events as well), since this is where I believe this problem is at its absolute worst.
As I decided to make my transition from traditional LD to circuit LD, I was given only one piece of advice: “Watch out. There’s a huge learning curve.” And a learning curve there was. For those who are not quite familiar with the difference, traditional LD mostly involves simpler, topic-specific argumentation while circuit LD adds in loads of nuances (Kritiks, Theory, Topicality, Tricks, Philosophy, etc.) Just like that, I was thrown into the deep end. Unbeknownst to the classic norms of circuit LD, I got some light coaching over the summer and tried to prime myself for my very first tournament. But I just didn’t know anything. I do not go to a big school, so I did not have an entirely organized debate club. I had no connections to the circuit LD world except for one person (shoutout Meera), and that was simply not enough. I went into my first tournament directionless and scared, blind to what was about to happen to me. Naturally, I faced four crushing losses out of five rounds, shooting my self-esteem downward. The trend continued for a month or two; I would lose more rounds than I won and I cried uncontrollably after every tournament. However, things started to change as I met my debate mentors, Ben and Breigh. Though they are only seniors in high school, they were able to help guide and ground me in such a way that I felt comfortable in the direction I was going. However, I’m still a novice. It’s been five months since I made the transition to circuit LD, and I still feel somewhat directionless and floaty. After doing consistently okay at the last few tournaments, I still had a 1-4 record at the recent bid tournament I went to. It sent me into a spiral of questioning and self-hatred. To me, it looked like a million steps backward. After all this work I’d done, was all I could muster up was one measly won round?
The circuit LD community perpetuates a constant state of unknowing. No matter how much you think you know, it’ll never be enough. And that’s my concern. This toxic ideology attacks the psyches of doe-eyed novices everywhere. Every small win looks like a loss in the shadow of the circuit LD monster. You can master theory, but you’ll forget that tricks exist. You can master tricks, but Kritiks will hit you out of nowhere. The endless scope of circuit LD arguments, the exclusivity of higher-level debaters, and the lack of a unifying guide for novices serve as a terrifying melting pot for anyone who wants to join the activity. It’s easy for big-school debaters to educate their novices because there's a set plan or direction for those debaters to go in. They’ll read arguments about why “the university only benefits the rich” while being the rich the university is benefitting. The bids start racking up and so does big-school hegemony. So what happens to low-income novices? Or novices who have no connections in the circuit debate society? They try to find coaches and mentors, but they often charge thousands of dollars a year. They try as hard as they can to master the hundreds of necessary blips in LD debate, but absent expensive coaching, it doesn’t work out in their favor. They try to sign up for debate camp, but that would mean spending upwards of $5000 for a three-week program. Because of the elitist structure of the circuit world, you can only have so much self-motivation and will power before the crushing nature of the activity becomes too much to handle. With no unifying guide on how to be a debater, dreams of qualifying to the TOC shatter right in front of their eyes.
Luckily, all hope is not lost. In this same breath, I’d like to take this time to credit the amazing non-profit organizations in the circuit LD world which work to help the novices that I’m talking about. PepTalk Debate, Win Debate, and the Beyond Resolved free coaching service, just to name a few, are non-profit volunteer initiatives that pair mentees and mentors for free, regardless of skill level. I met both my mentors through these organizations, and I believe its initiatives are extremely necessary for the inclusion of novices in the circuit society. In the face of oblivion and inconsistency, finding a mentor who understood exactly what I was going through propelled my love for debate even further. Any time I felt like the activity was becoming too much for me, they were always there. That’s what’s necessary for the inclusion of novices in this elite activity. Every novice deserves a mentor who can help guide them in the debate world based on what they want to do. It’s brilliant volunteers like my mentors (and tens of others) who restore my faith in the good of the debate community. The real superheroes aren’t those who bid at every tournament and spread through six minutes of tricks at 400 words per minute. It’s those who continue to make debate more accessible for everyone, regardless of who they are.
So yes, novice inaccessibility is a problem. The exclusivity of the circuit LD (and general debate) communities discourage excited novices every single year and send them into a spiral of self-questioning and destruction. I am one of those novices. I haven’t qualified to the TOC (hell, I haven’t even bid yet). But I wholly believe that if we create a unifying guide for novices in this activity, they will prosper. The elitism of the debate community will slowly start to fall apart as people realize you don’t necessarily have to be rich, white, cis, straight, and able-bodied to win the TOC. The debate space has turned into the antithesis of what it was meant to be; instead of letting people change the world with their words, novices are silenced through its structural breakage. We need to stop exploiting the suffering of marginalized groups in our off-case positions and actually start welcoming people into the debate community. So be the first to welcome a novice into the world of debate. Teach them the buzzwords, drill their positions with them, and be there for them as they ponder the wonders of the debate space. With every novice who learns to love this beautiful community comes the rebirth of the debate world into a better version of what it used to be. We novices are just looking for a path to follow, and every single person who lays that path for us becomes a hero.
Sanah Bhardwaj is a freshman at Mission San Jose High School and Copy Editor at Beyond Resolved. She has been in the speech and debate space for almost four years now (LD, PF, Impromptu, OI, OO, DI) and she believes that every speaker/debater has the ability to change the elitist forensics space for the better.
Note: The Beyond Resolved blog reflects the ideas of individual authors and not necessarily of the organization as a whole.